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Expert Explains Vaccine Development and What It Could Mean for COVID-19


Scientists around the world are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but the development, testing and manufacturing process takes time. Dr. Bethanie Wilkinson, a Falmouth resident and biochemist, has first-hand experience developing a vaccine. She developed Flublok, a flu vaccine widely available in the U.S.

WCAI's Kathryn Eident talked with her about how she developed her vaccine, and how the process she used could work in developing a vaccine for COVID-19.

Full disclosure: Wilkinson is also Eident's Aunt. 

Eident Good morning Aunt Beth, thanks so much for talking with us.

Wilkinson Glad to be here.

Eident You invented a flu vaccine that doesn't use eggs to harvest the virus and make that into a vaccine; your method takes protein from the virus. Can you explain it in everyday terms?

Wilkinson Sure. So, what we did was we took the genetic material for the surface antigen of the influenza virus and we put it into the little protein factories in a cell-based system and we produced a large amount of it. And then we purified that protein. And when we did, we put it into a saline [solution] in order to be injected.

As you know, most vaccines are made by killing a virus or by inactivating it or making a mild version. So, we didn't actually have any virus bacteria directly from the influenza virus in this. We're just using the code as a blueprint for making the protein.

But, we did get a pretty good immune response, and we got neutralizing antibodies, which was pretty exciting. And, one of the things we found out was that this protein, when it was in saline, it forms clusters of proteins that almost resemble a virus particle. And in fact, your immune system might recognize this protein and think it was a virus when it's just a protein. And, it would mount an immune response to to this particular virus, so that when you're exposed to the actual virus, you would be able to defend your body away from being infected.

Eident So, what you're saying is you took just a little piece of genetic material out of the virus and created a copy of it, so to speak, to make a vaccine out of that. And your vaccine, as all vaccines do, causes an immune response. And that doesn't mean it makes the body sick. Instead, it means it's causing the body to react so that when it does come in contact with the flu virus, the body can fight it off.

Wilkinson Yes, definitely. You're just trying to get antibodies, which some people call the first response to an infection. And later on, you involve other immune cells to do what's called a T-cell.

Eident So, this is an example of a safe vaccine that has been FDA-approved and it's widely available on the market. And you say this method can, and actually is, being used by at least one company in the U.S. to manufacture a vaccine for COVID-19.

Wilkinson That's correct, yes. And that's called Novavax. It's a company that not many people have heard about, and I actually didn't even know too much about what they were doing. So, I was really excited to hear that they were continuing some of the work that I did. And they're using the same expression system and has produced a vaccine that's actually going into testing in May. They've actually been able to get the surface protein for the coronavirus, the COVID-19.

And actually, Novavax has been able to show it gets T-cell responses also, which is very exciting because it's also turning on the immune system that you need to have turned on in order to fight an infection.

Eident There are many companies, not just in the U.S. as we know, but around the world, using a variety of methods to try to find a COVID vaccine. Why are you so excited about this one particular method or as you call it, expression system?

Wilkinson Well, actually, the other ways excite me quite a bit, too. And I think there's an MRNA vaccine that is really exciting. They're in humans right now. Pfizer's doing this vaccine and they're actually predicting that they could be on the market as early as the end of 2020, which is pretty exciting because, you know, we've been hearing 18 months is what we were going to have for a timeline for this vaccine.

Their method to do this would be, I guess, to do a small study, a safety study, which is what you're always required to do, and then scale it up into a larger study immediately after and then hopefully get it as soon as possible into an like an emergency study, which would be a large group of people that are maybe high risk or people that would need to get immunized first. And then, of course, get the FDA approval and then get it out to the general public.

And the fact that these are new and novel types like the MRNA and there's a DNA vaccine and another vaccine in the U.K., which is adenovirus, these are all great efforts. We're going to need as much effort and resources put into getting a vaccine, so I'm glad to see all of them. I just think this one has already been tested. It might be a little faster, but maybe not.

Eident --the protein expression system you used for your vaccine.

Wilkinson I'd like to see this one on the market, as well. And, I think it just has a proven record. But I do want to see the others working and coming forward, because whatever we get out there is as soon as possible be the for the best for everyone.

Eident Aunt Beth, this is not the first coronavirus we've seen in the world, and that's why it's called the novel coronavirus. So, with that in mind, why isn't a vaccine been developed before this pandemic?

Wilkinson Yes, and that's a really good point.

Well, one of the things about this is that it was always considered a mild virus and all viruses can mutate to become more lethal, more pathogenic, but it's hard to predict. It was considered a cold virus, a common cold, and nobody was too concerned. So, really there wasn't any market. Vaccines are not moneymakers. So, there's not a lot of interest in and doing research and developing vaccines unless something like this, of course, comes along in which the most important part is just getting this to as many people as possible. It's not profit that we're worried about it. It's our lives that we're worried about right now.

Eident Can vaccines like this be stockpiled or do they become inactive or will the corona virus mutate next year?

Wilkinson Yes, that's a good point. This may not be a one shot vaccine. You might have to do one like the flu every year.

Eident Well, Aunt Beth, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to explain the process of developing a vaccine. A little window into the work that you did and of course, the work that is going on to find a vaccine for COVID-19.

Wilkinson Well, it was my pleasure. And thank you very much, Katie.

Eident That's Dr. Bethanie Eident Wilkinson. She's a biochemist, and she's also my aunt.

Kathryn Eident was the Morning Edition Host and Senior Producer of News until November 2022.